Book of the Week: Money tarnishes 'starry dreams'

The Official Illustrated History of the FA Cup by Bryon Butler (Headline, pounds 25)
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Charles Alcock must be spinning in his grave. The sublime simplicity of his creation, the FA Cup, is being spoiled to the point where even the author of a book whose cover bears the Lancaster Gate lions and "official" tag feels compelled to complain.

In contrast with the humble origins of the competition - which Alcock, as FA secretary, persuaded an under-whelmed committee to adopt in 1871 - Butler's homage begins amid a hurricane of hyperbole. The Cup is "a charming old romancer", "football's fountain of life", and "a road full of potholes and tripwires" which is nonetheless "awash with starry dreams."

Precisely because of this passion about what the Cup stands for, Butler's views about what the FA should not have stood for carry considerable weight. His concluding chapter lists the reasons why "the Cup has lost some of its comely shape and sweet innocence": television, money, expediency, legislation and the Law.

But enough, for now, of a charming old romancer's foreboding. This substantial volume is primarily a celebration of the Cup's rich past. Picture, if you will, the Rt Hon Arthur Fitzgerald Kinnaird celebrating the Old Etonians' 1882 triumph by standing on his head, like an aristocratic Gazza, before the pavilion at The Oval.

Or imagine the Blackburn hordes invading London for the next year's final. The Pall Mall Gazette turned them "Northern Barbarians", adding: "a tribe of Sudanese Arabs let loose on The Strand would not excite more amusement and curiosity." To the same corner of Lancashire, at Darwen, Butler traces the first epidemic of Cup fever.

So it goes on, from the "White Horse" and Matthews finals through the year of "And Smith must score" to the present day. The picture researchers have unearthed evocative illustrations from finals and first qualifying round ties alike: Victorian faces with extravagant moustaches, stylised drawings and cartoons, plus aerial shots of bulging grounds which, like the Crystal Palace, are no more.

Among the most intriguing is a 1927 study of the Millwall crowd in which everyone, from the smallest urchin to the crustiest old codger, is wearing a flat cap. In another, the Graf Zeppelin hovers over the 1930 final as if foreshadowing dark days ahead. One of many images which capture the Cup's egalitarian appeal shows Ron Greenwood, the West Ham manager, on a tube station platform in 1964 with the trophy in a bag.

"There is only one holder of the Cup," declares the author, "but we are all joint owners." In an age when commentators are obliged to call it "The Littlewoods-sponsored FA Cup", when Stevenage have to forfeit home advantage and play at Birmingham, and when the lunch-time ritual of the draw on radio (definitively presented by Butler) is replaced by a tacky TV "show", it sounds increasingly like wishful thinking.